The Word of Reunion

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.                                                     (Luke 23.44-46)

The time has come for us to fix our eyes on our Lord and witness to his death.  Of those who stand with us at the foot of the cross some are stoic, some weep and some are afraid.  We know that fear – we are living through an unprecedented time of change and anxiety.  We worry about the coronavirus disease and the impact this is having on our health service, and for those in need of other medical treatment.  There are real concerns about how this will impact our futures; what businesses will suffer, what jobs will be lost; and what will life look like for our children when we come out the other side?

But the very last words of Jesus are not those of fear.  They are of complete trust, a moment of coming home, of reunion.  Again these are words from the childhood hymnbook of Jesus, from Psalm 31.  It has become the prayer of so many people since they were uttered on the cross; of the martyrs, men and women tortured and killed for their beliefs, of the sick and dying, of someone mourning a loved one, and all those baffled and confused by their suffering in whatever form it takes.  It is a prayer of trust – of giving up all pretence of control and of a total reliance on God.  It is a prayer that in weakness gives strength to so many.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we reflect on what we each fear the most – is it public humiliation, loneliness, a painful death or the death of a loved one?  

Is it fearing to follow Jesus fully because we think we will fail him or because we are scared of what might be asked of us?  

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.



(Artwork: ‘Christ of Saint John of the Cross; by Salvador Dali

The Word of Triumph

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’                         (John 19.30a )

Hours have passed and still Jesus hangs upon the cross.  Each breathe is agony as Christ struggles to lift his body, and the effort makes each final word shorter and shorter.  Despite this he doesn’t now say ‘I’m done’ or ‘I can’t go on’ but ‘it is finished’.  These are words of completion and of triumph.  

The task that Jesus undertook was at the point of perfection.  God’s work has been done, and in that end was a new beginning.  It is hard for us today to move easily between sorrow and joy, but in our self-isolation and quarantine, if we look forward to that moment when it is finished we will see that there will be only complete and unending happiness.  No more pain, no more tears, only joy.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we reflect on our own mortality in light of the words in 1 Corinthians 15: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?’  

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, I thank you with all my heart.



(Artwork: San Damiano Cross, before which St Francis of Assisi was praying when he is said to have received the commission from the Lord to rebuild the Church. It now hangs in the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi)

The Word of Distress

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.                    (John 19.28-29)

When something is withheld, we seem to automatically crave it more.  It is why Lenten disciplines of fasting and self-denial are as difficult as they are.  In fasting we enter into Christ’s our suffering in the wilderness, and prepare ourselves for times when the things we yearn for are denied to us, including life itself.  In this pandemic, our Lent has become one larger season of denial, and it hurts.

It is no surprise that Jesus was thirsty – he was drained by blood loss and sweating.  Unable to move he longs for someone to give him something to slake his thirst.  As we watch someone takes a sponge, dips it in sour wine and then sticks it on a hyssop branch, lifting it up to Jesus’ mouth.  It might be all that there was, but it was not an action that would bring relief from a parched mouth.  It was a thoughtless gesture without real care or love.  It was the kiss of Judas once more, an empty sign.

But as we watch we realize that Jesus is telling us about something beyound his physical needs.  From his place of desolation he thirsts for more than water.  

Was his greatest pain that of rejection?  To be unwanted, despised, to know that others wished to inflict sadness and hurt upon him, and yet his love was unbounded.  He still longed for us to come back to him.  He thirsts for us.

And we for him.  We don’t always know it, but that desire for God is deep within us.  Jesus saw it in the Samaritan woman by the well when he offered her living water.  In a moment he will die and his side will be opened and out will pour that living water.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we reflect on the first verse of Psalm 42: “as a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.’  

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, I yearn for you.



(Artwork: ‘Issenheim Altarpiece’ by Matthias Grünewald)

The Word of Abandonment

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’                                         (Matthew 27.45-49)

The first three sayings of Jesus show how even in the darkest moments something good, something of the light was to come out of it;  forgiveness, the promise of Paradise, and the very beginning of the Church.  But now, as we continue our faithful watch at the foot of the cross, Jesus cries out with words of pure desolation.

If we know God is with us, we can endure almost anything, because we know that pain and sorrow will pass, and joy and peace will return.  But if it feels as if God is not in our lives, then the emptiness is a pain in a league of its own.  

The pandemic lockdown is hard to cope with because of the uncertainty of when it will end.  The guidelines change continually, and we wait, not knowing when the restrictions will be lifted, of what the “exit strategy” is, vaccine or “herd immunity”, phrases most of us had never used before all this happened.  How long, O God; how long must we wait?

For anyone with a sense of being abandoned by God it is the most crucifying of all pains; it is the end of hope, a place of despair and nothingness.  Then we can only pray, ‘My God, why have you deserted me?’

These are words from Psalm 22.  Someone, hundreds of years before Christ’s Crucifixion, had been in total anguish and they had written those feelings down.  Now Jesus takes those words and embraces that human experience of desolation.   Even the experience of the absence of God is somehow brought within God’s own life.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we remember the times we have been faced with people who are experiencing suffering that makes everything seem meaningless, that life seems ruined.  We may even be living such moments right now.

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, please be with me.



(Artwork: ‘Christ Crucified’ by Diego Velázquez)

The Word of Relationship

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.                                                                    (John 19.25b-27)

Covid-19 is teaching us much of the value of community – for our families, and the pain of being divided from them; for our neighbours, and how in their troubled times how important they have become for practical and morale support.

On Calvary we stand next to three women and a man.  They are dignified, courageous and all that is left of the small community Jesus spent so long building up.  Everyone else has run away.  Judas has sold him for 30 pieces of silver.  Peter has denied him just as Jesus knew he would.  The rest of his friends are nowhere to be found.  This is all that is left.

With all that Jesus is going through it would be understandable if he had no other thought but for his own pain.  But now he looks down at those gathered at the foot of the cross, and with a few words of love he creates the first family.  His mother is given a son in his closest friend, and the beloved disciple is given a mother.

This is not just any community; it is our community, our family.  This is our mother and our brother.  In Christ we are kin, because we share the same blood, the blood of the cross.  To address a Christian we can call them ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.  It doesn’t matter how we came to the cross, what happened to bring us there, all our loves are different but there is no competition or rivalry in how we love Christ.  Sometimes we don’t recognise our God in the love of another person.   We can dismiss their faith as old-fashioned or new fangled; but right now Jesus asks us to open our eyes and see in them a new family, a new way of loving and living.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we think about those who have loved us and how they shaped our lives – let us give thanks for those whom we cannot be with at this time.  Is there time today to ring them and tell them what they mean to us? 

Let us also think about our brothers and sisters who are not relatives, and pray them.

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, I will love them.



(Artwork: ‘The Crucifixion, seen from the Cross’ by James Tissot)

The Word of Salvation

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’  (Luke 23.39-43)

We cannot look at the crucified Jesus for shame.  Instead we gaze around the landscape of Golgotha.  There are a few disciples who stand with us weeping and praying.  There are the Roman soldiers throwing dice to win his clothing, and either side of Jesus are two criminals, also dying in this hideous manner.  It reminds us that for the Jews and the Romans this was a common sight.  Crucifixion was not a special sentence designed just for Jesus, but a common death for lowly criminals…

Despite their own pain an argument now breaks out between the two men either side of Jesus.  One mocks Jesus, challenging him to save himself from this undignified end.  He echos the words of the devil to Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry.  ‘Save yourself,’ he challenges.

We don’t know what wrongdoing the second man had done to deserve this fate, but tradition has named him the Good Thief, and perhaps that is right because he is about to take possession of something that was not his.  Despite his past, this man is both humble and daring.  He recognises the purity of Jesus: ‘this man has done nothing wrong,’ he says and then he pleads with Jesus to remember him.  He doesn’t demand a place in heaven, just that Christ might spare him one second of thought, of love.  His faith is rewarded with a place in Paradise.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we think about how we can be both humble and daring.  The Good Thief  spoke up when he was in pain and fear – so too in this time of Covid-19, in our time of trial, we can risk everything at the last to stand up against those who would mock Christ and yet also acknowledge our failings.  

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, remember me.



(Artwork: ‘The Crucifixion’ by Glyn Jones, and can be seen at St Bride’s Church, London)

The Word of Forgiveness

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’    (Luke 23.33-38)

One of the hardest parts of this pandemic is for those who have been denied access to their loved ones in hospital.  The reasoning is understandable, but grief is compounded when we cannot be with those we love when they are sick.

Listening for the final words of a dying loved one is a powerful experience.  We wait expectantly for the last messages they have to give us – words of comfort or love, a secret or memory shared, something to treasure in the hard days to come.

In these reflections over Holy Week, although we cannot gather together, in our imaginations we can gather together at the foot of the cross.  In this great time of waiting, let us imagine ourselves standing, waiting for the final words of God’s Word made flesh…

It is difficult for us to even raise our eyes to the cross for the pain so clearly visible is too much for us to bear.  Jesus, our Beloved teacher, Lord and Master, is covered in blood from the lashings to his back, from the crown of thorns pushed mockingly down upon his head, and from the cruel wounds of the nails in his hands and feet.  His body drips with sweat from carrying the heavy crossbeam.  It is a struggle for him even to breathe.

Jesus raises his head as if to speak.  What will he say?  We wait…and listen.  ‘Forgive them,’ Jesus says.  Is he speaking about the Roman soldiers?  Certainly if they had any understanding at all surely they wouldn’t do such dreadful acts of violence to another human being, would they?  Had their military training destroyed their humanity?  Or is he speaking to the House of Israel?  Because they had waited so long for the Messiah, but in the end they didn’t understand.  The authorities had panicked and handed Jesus over to the Romans, knowing that this would be his fate.  Or is he speaking to us?  

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we ponder this difficult question – who do we crucify? 

Who do we hurt with economic nails, environmental whippings, with the thorn crown of war and conflict, and with the heavy weight of family disagreements?

Who is being crucified by the impact of Covid-19, and we don’t even notice? 

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, I am sorry.



(Artwork: ‘Christ at the Cross’ by Carl Bloch)


The gifts so far, gold and frankincense, have told us that the Magi were on a journey to see a king, the King of kings, and above all, God.

So why did they bring the third and final gift: MYRRH?

Like frankincense, it’s a resin used in perfume and incense; but much about myrrh speaks of pain.  

Its name means ‘bitter’, and even to harvest the resin, the tree must be wounded repeatedly to bleed the tree of the gum.

It can be used in medicine as an antiseptic and to numb pain, which explains why what was given to Christ at his birth, would be offered to him again on the cross.  Jesus refused the wine mixed with myrrh, feeling every second of his torture, living every moment of our salvation.

After his death, his body was taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, with infinite courage and love, in the face of great suspicion and personal danger.  They brought with them ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing a hundred pounds.’ (Jn 19.39). Using these spices they bound Christ’s body in the linen cloths before laying him in the tomb.

Myrrh used as an embalming oil becomes a symbol of mortality and death; and so we are shown the Magi’s final prophecy.  This tiny child, anointed and holy, this innocent baby was born to die.

At Christmas of course we want to linger in the joy and nostalgia of a family celebrating together, but our journey to the manger with the Magi reminds us that God became man for a reason.  The crib and the cross are held together.

Christ was born to save us, to show us the way to God, to make us right with God, and ultimately to die for us.

So what can we possibly bring our King, our God, this innocent person, who would die for us?

In the carol ‘We Three Kings’, myrrh speaks of “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying”, but it is not the end of the hymn, nor of the story. 

Christ died to rise from the dead, to bring us new life, new hope.  This is the Christmas message of the Magi; “Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice.”

After all he has done for us, this Christmas we can bring Jesus something very precious indeed.

Our sincere thanks.

Our repentant hearts.

Our changed lives.

We bring ourselves.

Frankincense – an Advent Reflection

All the parables and teachings, do they simply boil down to Jesus being one of those wise people, the sort of person who just says the right thing at the right time? Was he the zeitgeist of a new way of seeing the world?

Maybe he was a rebel, counter-cultural with his talk of love, pushing people to examine what they were doing with their lives? He certainly made a difference because he made people think a little differently about the world.

But someone who was just a good man, a clever man, a revolutionary thinker, is that the sort of person the Magi would have searched for in the stars, and travelled hundreds of miles to find?

What might the second gift tell us to answer the question – who is Jesus?


Franc is an old French word meaning noble or pure, so frankincense simply means high-quality incense. Being the best of its type this was clearly another costly gift like the gold It was a gift for someone very special.

However, as an aromatic resin used in incense and perfume, unlike the gold, frankincense had a specific purpose to fulfil. For thousands of years it had been used in religious rites, and its value meant it was often given as a gift to a king. So Christ’s kingship is underscored again – but is that all?

Incense was said to take the prayers of the faithful up to God, and in visions of heaven received by Isaiah and John the Divine, the presence of God was surrounded by the smoke of incense.

Frankincense therefore speaks of prayers, of liturgy, of heaven and so it points to more than kingship – it points to Christ’s identity as our great high priest.

For some Christ’s priesthood wasn’t obvious – he wasn’t from the family of Levi, the traditional priestly line, but of Judah; he was a new, other type of priest, one in the same form as the Old Testament priest of Melchizedek. As we hear the stories of Christ’s life, we can look his priesthood, especially as Easter draws near.

The theologian Origen takes us deeper into the mystery of the frankincense, pointing out that it was used in the Temple, in the very presence of God. He wrote, “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.”

If this true, it surely changes everything – for at Christmas we come to bow before a baby, but also before our Emmanuel, our ‘God with us’.

What can we possibly bring God?

Trite gifts half-heartedly meant will not do.

This is God. The Alpha and the Omega. The beginning and the end of everything.

Did the Magi truly know who they were bringing their gifts? If so, what was that moment like, to kneel before God?

And if you accept this, what will you bring Jesus Christ, God Incarnate?

What is the frankincense of your life?
Your prayers?
Your hopes and dreams and fears and worries?
Your faith, an open heart, a willingness to believe?

Because this changes everything:
“Frankincense to offer have I, 
Incense owns a Deity nigh”

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